Dir/Writer: Isabella Eklöf, Wri: Johanne Algren| Cast: Thijs Romer, Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde | Thriller | Danish | 112′
If you’re worried about the current state of male empowerment this film from Denmark will adjust the skewered perception, in this year’s BFI London Film Festival showing, that women are somehow pulling rank in the pecking order and getting too big for their boots.
HOLIDAY certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing and there are some shockingly sadistic pornorgraphic scenes that are by no means gratuitous, and are actually pivotal to the plot. It’s the debut feature of writer and director Isabella Eklöf who co-wrote Cannes winner Border and also worked on Tomas Alfredson’s lugubrious vampire standout, Let the Right One In. Her third outing at the LFF is a stunning looking but savage satire that explores sexual abuse and domination.
Some may say HOLIDAY overplays its hand in its overlong preamble, making us wait nearly a hour before the feisty finale kicks in. But this torpid first hour allows Eklof and her co-writer Johanne Algren to set the scene for a devastating denouement by slathering her thriller with rich layers of texture, establishing the lowlife criminal ethos of the humans to just how boring and beastly they have become. The venal antihero Michael (Lai Yde) plays a Danish drug baron who has taken call-girl Sascha (a well-cast ectomorph Victoria Carmen Sonne) for a break in a Villa in Bodrum. While he does ‘a bit of business’, she suns herself by the pool with a motley crew of family members and hoodlums. Crude is very much the watchword in HOLIDAY. These mindless meatheads are be-decked in timepieces the size of telephones, garish trainers and vulgar designer labels such as Philip Pleinn.
In the opening scenes Sascha rocks up at the Turkish airport wearing a platinum hairpiece showing more black roots than Kunta Kinte. Her personality could be best described as vacant, she is an symbol of female submission, and for most of the film she is as naive as Bambi. But something is clearly ticking away in her reptilian brain that makes her strike out like a cobra when we’re least expecting it. Once ensconsed in the villa, Sascha has her work cut out dealing with the macho Michael who flexes his muscles with regular psychotic outbursts that end in abusive sex. This is the school of hard-knocks and not even Michael’s henchman escape a bloody good hiding when they overstep the mark. The only sights Sascha sees in the ancient Turkish port are expensive jewellery shops and lap-dancing clubs. She is there as an extension of Michael’s ego: when he’s feeling good she gets a hug or some emerald earrings (“they’re more expensive than diamonds”); when he’s feeling bad she gets a punch in the nose or even worse. But never is there meaningful sex.
On the contrary, the two have no emotional bond, but control freak that he is, Michael soon asserts his authority when Sascha strikes out on her own, and is drawn to an attractive Dutchman, Thomas (Thijs Romer), whose yacht is moored in the marina. At first it feels like she’s looking for a life raft, and escape route from Michael – but not a bit of it. Sasha flirts with Thomas, but her goal is to garner the emotional strokes she craves, feeding her latent narcissism.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Michael takes another bad mood out on Sascha, roughing her up and then abusing her sexually on the cold marble floor. The violent release gives Michael a psychopathic high and he falls asleep feeling totally fulfilled in her annihilation. Sascha soaks up the intended rejection that enforces her own lack of self esteem: the two are one. Victorious, Michael now has to lift his leg, metaphorically speaking, on Thomas. Arranging a quiet tête à trois, with the subtext of discussing yachts, Michael invites the unsuspecting Dutchman to join him and Sascha for dinner. In an act of vicois bravado, he then flagrantly humiliates both of them, and Thomas rapidly gets his coat.
The material in this uncomfortable but brilliant film could to be developed into others of the genre, if Eklöf so desires, and let’s hope she does. As female writers go, she is certainly on a par with Patricia Highsmith in her ability to create psychological complexity and conjure up tightly-plotted thrillers in glamorous surroundings, as demonstrated in this dynamite debut. MT
ON RELEASE from FRIDAY 2 August 2019